Badlands on the Wing

Bret and Mika with a couple Hungarian Partridge.  Photo by Ben Brettingen
Bret and Mika with a couple Hungarian Partridge. Photo by Ben Brettingen

Slowly, I crept over the top of the narrow draw with my eyes darting back and forth, scanning for movement.  The edges were lined with leafless trees and heavy buck brush, while the middle was a narrow slough that was mostly dry.  Suddenly, the crashing began.  The big whitetail that I’d seen on the first morning was quickly leaving the area as graceful as a bull in a china shop.  Branches were breaking as he bee lined straight out of the woods, across a valley and out of sight.  Just like that, my trip to western North Dakota had come full circle.  I’d experienced close calls, dog injuries, breathtaking landscapes and blisters-with no venison to show for it.

This is the story of how my bow hunting trip became more of an upland bird adventure instead.

I guess they had a little rain/snow recently.
I guess they had a little rain/snow recently.

I had traveled to western North Dakota directly from Pierre, South Dakota following the Governor’s Pheasant Hunt there.  I took a new route that I hadn’t traveled before, across the Cheyenne River, zigzagging my way to Hettinger.  I resisted the urge to stop and chase roosters along the way and tried to get to my destination in time to hunt before dark.    I made a stop at the “Last Great Buffalo Hunts” location to stretch the legs and see the area that held the last of the free ranging buffalo.

11713 - buffalo hunt stop hay bale water-2

I’d be hunting new land on the edge of the Badlands that was half private and half public.  There had been some deer seen in the area, but it hadn’t been hunted much this year.  The first morning I’d sit would be more of an exploratory mission.  I brought my camera along to take some pictures, binoculars and my bow.

I did forget my release.  Doh.

103013 - ND BADLANDS whitetail muley bucks-2

Much like the first time I hunted some new land last fall by Moorhead, this would be the closest I’d get to some nice deer.   After an hour in the stand of quiet time, I caught a glimpse of movement to my left.  Soon I saw the curve of a main beam come out from behind a tree.  My heart started pumping and I thought back to the one time (just ONE time) I drew back my bow with just fingers during practice.  Since this wasn’t the first time I’ve left my release back at camp, I plan on practicing it a few more times.   The buck stepped out and I was able to get a good look, in a year or two he’d be a great buck, but he just wasn’t what I was looking for on this trip.  Just as I relaxed a bit, another rack came down the trail.  He was a little bigger, but still not quite what I wanted.   As they sniffed and scratched their way toward me, I noticed another set of legs walking through the woods, bypassing the trail that winds by my stand-could it be their big brother?  The two smaller bucks came within 8 yards of me before crossing my footprints in the dusting of snow that we received and stopped.  As they turned, I saw the mystery deer exit the woods at 150 yards.

"The getaway"
“The getaway”

Yep, he was the bigger of the three, and the same deer that I’d see on the last day bulldozing his way out of the brush.

The ranch that I was hunting had cattle that would graze in a nearby sorghum field.  While I couldn’t hunt this perfect pheasant habitat because of the cows, I could hunt the barley field next to it.  I’d walk a small section of it each day with my lab, Mika and managed to find roosters and Sharp-tailed grouse each day.

The furry legs of a Sharp-tailed grouse.
The furry legs of a Sharp-tailed grouse.

We even found some Hungarian Partridge and I put my first two on the ground.

Ben Brettingen arrived on Thursday night and joined the hunt early Friday morning.  We trekked out into the public portion and split up hoping to find bucks to chase.  He did and the next day we were taking pictures of it with the scenic landscape as a backdrop.   Watch for the story of this buck in the winter issue of Minnesota Sporting Journal magazine.

Ben Brettingen's North Dakota P&Y Buck
Ben Brettingen’s North Dakota P&Y Buck

After caping and quartering his deer, we found out that the cattle would be moved out of the sorghum for the day and we could walk it for birds.  We gladly strapped on the orange and headed out, my with my shotgun and Ben as my personal photographer.   We flushed a few birds in the heavy wind, but mostly they would run.  And run.  Mika would give chase, but as we found out, sorghum can have some sharp edges.  I noticed a little blood on her tongue, but didn’t see any major cuts or injuries.  Soon however, her chest and both front legs were stained red.  It looked like she’d just won the Superbowl and had fruit punch Gatorade dumped over her head.

Mika gets a little bloody!
Mika gets a little bloody!

There may be no greater enjoyment than hunting birds over a dog, but there is always that risk of an injury.  And it always happens on a long distance road trip and always on the weekend!  A quick call to the vet told me what I already knew:  tongue injuries usually look worse than they are and it would be an “emergency” trip to the vet=$$$.

I decided to play Dr Doolittle and kept her on bed rest for the day and night.  Aside from a few “spurting” episodes, she’d be fine and even hunted the next day.  I kept it a short walk and stayed away from the sharp cover, but she managed 16 flushes in an hour!  Beastmode.

Prairie Storm wreaked some havoc in western Nodak!
Prairie Storm wreaked some havoc in western Nodak!

After Ben headed back home, I stuck around for one more day.  I had resigned myself to finding a nice whitetail doe to put in the freezer.  I had seen a good number of them from the stand on that first sit after the three bucks came through.  I considered heading to that stand, but the wind was completely wrong.  Instead I sat along a washout at the top of a butte that deer highway trampled into the side of it.  I watched the three bucks walk over it, I’d seen nice mule deer bucks walk over it and countless other deer.  This morning the only visiter I’d get though, would be a young muley buck at 45 yards.  With mule deer numbers down, I didn’t want to shoot anything smaller than a trophy.  I passed and headed into the hills to try and spot and stalk.

103013 - ND BADLANDS whitetail muley bucks-4

Mule deer can be an easy target with a rifle as they’ll sometimes stop and stare at whatever disturbance brought them out of their slumber, but with the open country of the west, trying to get into bow range can be a challenge.  That’s why I consider making my way to 53 yards of one shooter and 80 yards of another a victory, even if I didn’t take one home.

I did draw on the first buck, but luck was on his side.  I’d come over the top of a wooded draw and noticed a pair of ears tucked neatly next to a cedar tree on the other bank.  I slowly backed down out of sight and made my way around behind the them.  The wind was at their back so I had to come over on the upwind side so my scent wouldn’t give me away.  As I crawled over the top, I noticed one deer standing-I was already busted.   Another deer was 10 yards behind her but I couldn’t see the head.  The body was big and soon he stared walking and the rack appeared.   I drew back and he started trotting and by the time he hit an open lane he was doing the famous hop that mule deer are notorious for.  I tried to stop him with a series of “mehs” but he was following the 7 does that were pouring out of the woods.  They pranced their way across the valley and up a steep butte before stopping and looking back.  If only they made bows that were accurate up to 500 yards!  Huffing and puffing I sat down and thought about what I could have done differently.  Not much, other than just try and wait the deer out and hope they come by an ambush location later in the day, I guess.  Since this was my last full day, I didn’t have that kind of time.

I ended up stalking the biggest muley I’ve seen in the Badlands in the 4 years I’ve been hunting out there, later that afternoon.  I only made it to 80 yards this time before he wandered off with his harem and grazed about 150 yards away, almost saying “na na nah boo boo”.  It would be dark within a half an hour and he was headed further away from civilization.   The stalk would come to an end and it would be down to the final morning.

103013 - ND badlands deer rooster grouse

The 20+ mile an hour wind would wake me up throughout the night and gave me nightmares about my last moments in the stand.  I had decided to go back to where I’d seen all the does the first morning, but the strong wind was coming from the west, while the deer would be coming from the east.  Not a good combination.   Instead I headed east along the trail and tried to find a secluded bend where I might be out of the wind.  It didn’t matter because I’d stare at a vacant trail all morning.  Not wanting to give up, I decided to scope out a few draws along the walk back.  That’s where my bull in the china shop buck waved goodbye.

103113 - ND badlandsturkey pheasant mika-5

I packed up my bow and pointed the truck to the east.  That strong west wind would give me 20mpg for the ride home-a small consolation.  I managed to see deer on each sit and but an upland bird in the freezer on each day.

I guess I can’t complain too much.

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